St. Paul's son
U OF M GRAD MELVIN CARTER ON LEADING HIS CITY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Talk to Melvin Carter III, ’11 M.P.P., about St. Paul and you can feel his love for the city. It comes through in every word, every story. As St. Paul’s first African American mayor, Carter has been building social capital in the capital city since taking office in January. He’s attended neighborhood meet-ups, supported students protesting gun violence, paid an impromptu visit to a Republican precinct caucus—all in the name of making the city a better place. Carter recently talked about his plans and his time at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
You’re a fourth-generation St. Paulite. What does leading the city mean to you?
I grew up in the recreation centers, I grew up in the libraries, I grew up in the public schools. As an African American child, I got a chance to see the richness of opportunity that exists in this city and the depth and alarming breadth of people who seem to be locked out of it. So when we talk about building a city that works for all of us, I’m intimately aware that St. Paul hasn’t always worked for all of us. The goal for me is to build a city without outsiders.
With all the issues facing St. Paul, where do you start?
When I was on the St. Paul City Council, one of the neighborhoods I represented was Frogtown. As we talked about public safety or housing or employment, we realized these were all conversations around how well our families are prepared to compete in the workforce. At the time I started, Frogtown had a 10 percent college graduation rate. Unless we’re focused on preparing people for success in life and in the workforce, everything else we do will be picking around the margins.
You’ve proposed creating a $50 college savings account for every child born in St. Paul. How will that help?
My story at the University of Minnesota starts long before I started at the Humphrey School. I was a sprinter in high school. We had our summer meets at Bierman. I was also an UMTYMP (University of Minnesota Talented Youth in Mathematics Program) student all through junior high and high school. We had a cohort of students who studied math and stayed at Middlebrook Hall during the summer.
I got a chance to see myself as part of the University community. That’s part of the conversation around college savings accounts: for our children to see themselves in college.
What were your career plans when you were in college?
I went to college at Florida A&M on a track and field scholarship. Honestly, my plan was to go to the Olympics. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But I figured that whatever you do, you need to have business skills. I saw myself in the corporate space or doing nonprofit leadership.
Why did that plan change?
Florida A&M is one of the largest historically black colleges in the country. We were there during Census 2000 having conversations about why it’s important for everyone to be counted. We were there when former Governor Jeb Bush flirted with dismantling affirmative action. We were there during a string of pipe bombings on campus. It was almost like a Civil Rights immersion experience.
In the midst of that came the 2000 election. My brother-in-law and hundreds of our classmates were turned away at the polls. All those experiences worked together to create a generation of people who are really passionate about doing something. I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.
Why come back and enroll in the Humphrey School?
I did an internship in the St. Paul department of planning and economic development during college. I had conversations with planners who would talk about how the design of a neighborhood impacts things like the quality of education children receive and the number of 911 calls. I got excited about that and needed the methodology to figure out how to approach those issues.
You received the Humphrey Alumni Scholarship during that time. How important was that?
As a young person with loans still left from undergrad, I don’t know if I would have been able to actually go to the Humphrey School without scholarship support.
Why run for City Council while finishing grad school?
I was working in Mayor Chris Coleman’s office when he first got elected. That’s when I really fell in love with municipal government. Municipal government touches our lives on such an intimate level—whether it’s sending a snow plow to make sure people can get to work or school, or getting a police officer to help people in their most challenging moments, or providing an after-school program for kids. I learned just how important good local government is. That made me want to run.
What about the U stays with you?
One thing I learned in Florida is what an incredible jewel the University of Minnesota is. I would be reading a case study and see that the research had been done at the University of Minnesota. The impact this university has on the country and the world is something.
Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.
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